It’s official: muddy kids learn best

For two weeks now, the media has descended on the nursery – Dandelion Education – attended by two of my children, as it was judged the country’s best nursery at the 2017 Nursery World awards.

This might have remained an obscure industry prize were it not for the fact that, unusually, Dandelion is an outdoor nursery and forest school. My four-year-old, Ted, spends his Dandelion days playing outdoors, in all weathers, in a place where plastic toys are banned and children build their own with real tools.

We noticed such a beneficial impact on Ted that we asked our local primary school to allow another of our children, Esme, to flexi-school and join Dandelion two days a week. The school’s enlightened head agreed.

For the past six months, I’ve volunteered a day a week at Dandelion too. This began as book research but it has brought less expected, more important benefits. Young children are the funniest, most enthusiastic colleagues imaginable. Watching Dandelion’s founders, Emma Harwood and Hayley Room, facilitate child-led learning and defuse conflict has been a massive educational experience for me as a parent. And I’ve been surprised how I beam at each day’s end: outdoor learning is good for adult health too.

As a consequence, outdoor education no longer seems radical to me, despite the dramatic impact of Dandelion’s fire circle on TV news or tabloid pictures of slightly demonic-looking “tots” wielding electric drills.

I’ve been impressed with how the tabloids have covered Dandelion’s success in good faith, but mostly I’ve glowed with pride at the recognition for Harwood and Room, who set up Dandelion against all odds and continue to labour all hours to make it work. Reading online comments by Sun and Daily Mail readers is transformative too. I assumed that forest schooling was a middle-class lefty passion, but rightwingers love getting children outdoors again and banishing “elf and safety”.

Is the penny dropping? All five shortlisted nurseries at the awards were outdoor operations. Policymakers across the political spectrum should take note: making outdoor learning part of conventional early years education could be as popular as free school dinners.

• Patrick Barkham is a Guardian columnist